Jeannette Angell

Novelist | Playwright | Short Story Writer | Poet

Callgirl Excerpt

“Mind the gap… Mind the gap!”

I was standing on a subway platform in London, in the Underground, listening to a disembodied voice telling me in the tones of a not-too-friendly nanny to watch my step. I appreciated the concern, if not its delivery.

So I stood there dutifully minding the gap, and I thought about the newspaper advertisement folded into the shoulder bag I carried. It felt conspicuous, as though everyone else on the train platform could tell exactly what was in there, and what it said.

I had picked up the Phoenix just before leaving Boston, on an impulse that wasn’t really an impulse but was disguised as one anyway. My impulses usually are. I was in London for a week, lecturing at the London School of Economics, and my mind wasn’t exactly on my work.

It should have been, of course. It was an honor and a privilege to be here, and my professional life shouldn’t be impacted just because I was having problems in my personal life. But that’s the way that it always works, isn’t it? You think you can separate it all out, put your life into neat little compartments where nothing overlaps with anything else. You think that, and you’re wrong.

My personal life was screaming for attention. Loudly. I needed money. I needed a lot of money, and I needed it quickly.

I needed the money because Peter, my most recent boyfriend, had not only decided to fly to San Francisco to meet up with some ex (whom he had been f—ing behind my back the whole time we were together, as it turned out), but had also emptied my checking account before leaving. A prince among men.

Rent was due. The decimated bank account had held all the money I had to live on until the end of the semester. That was when the two community colleges where I taught sociology elective classes would be paying me. I had to live within those parameters, with budgets planned well in advance and no extra or surprise expenses allowed.

Peter’s desertion decidedly qualified as a surprise expense.

In any case, the end of the semester was two months off. Which was why I needed a lot of cash, and needed it quickly.

So I dealt with the crisis in my usual way. I spent one night getting very drunk and feeling very sorry for myself, and I got up the next morning, did what I could to deal with my hangover, and made a list. I love lists, I always have. Lists give me the illusion of being in control. I listed every possible way I could get the money I needed.

It was a depressingly short list.

The one thing I was not going to do was ask for assistance in any way. Not from my family and not from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I had been the one to make the bad judgment call, it made no sense to ask anyone else to pay for my mistakes. So even though I had written down the words “government assistance” on my list, I ignored them and moved on.

I frowned at the remaining items, crossed off “childcare,” both since I’m really incompetent with children and also the pay was too low to make much of a difference, and frowned again at what was left.

I was going to have to try one of these options. I didn’t have a lot of choices left. I took a deep breath, and I went to work.

I called a number I had found in some campus newspaper, BU or Northeastern or something, the ubiquitous one we’ve all seen, the one that is looking for people to sit in cubicles and respond to 900 calls. Talk sex, convince them that you’re hot for them, that sort of thing.

Well, the rat bastard boyfriend had told me that I had a sexy voice, so I figured it was worth a try. I’d only do it this once, of course.

I clearly hadn’t given the idea enough thought, because I was totally unprepared for the sleaziness of my interview. I hadn’t imagined ahead of time the really scary visuals: the rows of tiny cubicles, with women sitting in them wearing headsets and talking; they never stopped talking. Lights were flashing on their phones. Mostly they were middle-aged, with sagging flesh and garish makeup and an air of indifference that might have been cruel if it hadn’t felt so hopeless.

And I hadn’t visualized the way-too-young greasy guy with way too many piercings who never even looked at me as he squeezed words out past a toothpick sticking to his lower lip. His eyes didn’t leave the skin magazine he was thumbing through. “Okay, honey. Eight bucks an hour, two calls minimum.”

“What does that mean, two calls minimum? Two calls an hour?”

That earned me a glance. I couldn’t tell if it was amusement or pity. “Two calls minimum at a time.”

I stared at him. “You mean keep two different people on the phone…?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” He sounded bored beyond belief. “If one of em wants you to be a Ukrainian gymnast and the other wants you to be a tattooed lesbian, you go with it. Time’s money. Want the job?”

I was still stuck imagining the reactions of the clients when you got them mixed up. It was indescribable. Sure. For eight dollars an hour. This could happen.

So I gave up and tore up the list and panicked some more for a while about the money thing. The bills kept coming in, as they have a habit of doing: time stops for no bankruptcy. I could read the official-looking print through the rusted gap in my mailbox: computer-generated, thin envelopes. Some had a strip of red around the edges. No need to open them. I knew what they said.

Suitably enough, one of the classes I was teaching was a sociology elective called On Death and Dying. Suitably, of course, because I was accompanying it with such dark thoughts. I would break the class into discussion groups and stare over their heads out the window and feel that cold claw of fear somewhere in my stomach. One of those weeks we talked about suicide.

It didn’t sound like such an impossible option.

And then, slowly at first, my thoughts kept going back to the newspaper. I sometimes looked in the After Dark section of the Phoenix, even after I decided that I couldn’t possibly be both a Ukrainian gymnast and a tattooed lesbian, and I wasn’t stopping anymore at the 900 number ads.

The next pages, the ones after the telephone lines, were for the escort services.

I’d look, and then I’d shut the paper and let my cat Scuzzy sleep on it while I pretended that it wasn’t there, and corrected student essays instead. And yet… and yet.

Why not?

Was it such an impossible idea? Did I really want to add an extra fifty hours a week to my schedule, working at a Borders bookstore or a Starbucks coffeehouse for just over minimum wage? Those were the next options on the list, after all. I’d even interviewed. Borders said I could start any time.

It was around then that a voice in my head started speaking up. It sounded suspiciously like my mother’s voice, and the voice was not happy at all about the direction my thoughts were taking. It was interesting that the voice hadn’t spoken up when I looked into the 900 number sex-on-the-phone idea, but that was another issue altogether. The voice was certainly going into overtime now.

Just wait, I said to the voice. Hold on a moment. Let’s think about this. You can sit in a cubicle and pretend to be having sex with two (or more, as seemed to be the assumption) men at once, keeping them on the phone for as long as you can, and having the same conversations twenty or thirty or forty times a night. Or you can do the real thing. Once a night. For a hell of a lot more than eight dollars.

And what’s the difference? Honestly?

There’s a huge difference, the voice responded. It sounded exasperated, as my mother’s had when I was disagreeing with her on a moral question. Okay, I said, trying to be open: but why? Where do you draw the line? Why is one thing semi-acceptable and the other not at all? You wouldn’t exchange sex for five dollars; I’ll accept that. But, let’s see: would you for five hundred? For five thousand? For five million? Ah, yes, that’s a different question, isn’t it? So, as Churchill once said, now we know what you are, we just have to determine your price.

The voice had fallen oddly silent. I couldn’t blame it: it’s hard to talk back to Churchill.

Later on, when I got to know some of the other callgirls, I asked them the same question. Why is having casual sex with a man you pick up in a singles bar considered acceptable, but having sex as a business proposition is not? Which is more ethical? Marie said that what decided her to start working for the service was the moment she stopped and really thought about how many men she had allowed to put their p—es inside her, men who later made her skin crawl with disgust – and that for no money at all.

It gives you pause, it really does.

I had let the rat bastard boyfriend touch me, kiss me, f— me. Now the mere thought of his d—, his hands, his tongue made me feel queasy, dirty somehow.

And in the end, as it turned out, I had paid him.

So I picked up the Phoenix on my way to Logan and England, and I sat in the student dormitory that was all I could afford for the week I was lecturing there, and I opened the After Dark section and read the ads.

I circled one.

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